Like most of the Nationals, there was far more rest than post-postseason shenanigans for reliever Sean Doolittle. And considering how much Doolittle pitched down the stretch and how much the Nationals relied on him in the postseason, the left-handed definitely needed the mental floss in the formative weeks of the offseason.
But as the calendar turned to December and the bulk of baseball’s roster machinations, Doolittle took careful note of what the Nationals were doing -specifically, how much attention general manager Mike Rizzo was paying to his bullpen.
The Nationals’ 5.66 ERA in relief was the worst in the majors and their 29 blown saves were only two off the poorest mark in baseball. It was clear that Rizzo - who has specialized in bullpen makeovers over the past few seasons, including the trade that brought Doolittle from the A’s in 2017 - was going to be challenged to fortify the relief corps long before the trading deadline.
In the span of a few days earlier this month, that’s exactly what happened. The Nats signed free agent reliever Will Harris to a three-year deal worth $24 million. Just a few days later, they agreed to terms to bring back Daniel Hudson, who threw the World Series-clinching pitch in Houston on Oct. 30, for two years and $11 million. The Nationals have let to formally announce Hudson’s signing.
Count Doolittle, who suddenly has a lot of company and support in the back end of the bullpen, as impressed.
“I think it says a lot. ... Starting pitching has always been the strength of this organization. The best teams they’ve had here, that’s kind of been the trademark,” Doolittle said Saturday morning at Nationals Winterfest. “Relief pitching, it’s just so inherently volatile. Sometimes you can make moves, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. But they’ve never not gone for it and they always try to bring in the pieces. ... Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want it to go, but sometimes it comes together. You find the right pieces and that puzzle fits together really, really well.”
Doolittle lobbied hard for the return of Hudson, a Lynchburg, Va., native who pitched at Old Dominion. Hudson’s acquisition from the Blue Jays at last summer’s nonwaiver trade deadline paid huge dividends when a fatigued Doolittle went on the injured list in mid-August with right knee tendinitis. Over his final 14 appearances of the regular season, Hudson assumed the closer’s role and went 3-0 with five saves and a 1.62 ERA.
“I’ve been talking to Huddy for pretty much throughout the offseason and trying to get a feel for what he was thinking and what might happen,” Doolittle said. “We never really talked specifics, but he was like, ‘Man, I want to come back (and) I’m not really sure if it’s gonna work out or not.’”
But when the Nationals inked Harris during a frenzy of moves, Doolittle wondered if there would still be room left for Hudson. News of Hudson’s return broke at an inopportune time for Doolittle, who was recording a podcast with a D.C. outlet and talking about “Star Wars” and was put on hold briefly when the move broke.
“I had my fingers crossed and then we signed Will Harris and I was so excited about it,” Doolittle said. “I don’t know if people realize this - I hope Nats fans know that he’s one of the best relievers in all of baseball. You look at his numbers from last season and throughout his career - he’s more than just the guy that gave up the home run to Howie (Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series) - which was an incredible pitch, by the way. That’s just a reliever’s nightmare: Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way.”
Harris’ arrival, plus the return of Doolittle and Hudson, gives the Nationals three reliable arms in the later innings. Doolittle said all are capable of filling a variety of roles, hinting that ego will be brushed aside for the good of the team among the trio of relivers.
Throw in the presence of righties Tanner Rainey, who is a year more mature as he learns how to harness his triple-digit fastball, and workhorse Wander Suero, plus healthy returns from trade deadline acquisitions Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías, and last season’s question mark is decidedly stronger.
“It gives us depth. It gives us options,” Doolittle said. “If the guys coming back from last year, if they take a step forward, the next thing you know you’ve got a really deep and a really good bullpen.”
Doolittle has one more move he’d like to see the Nationals make: re-sign Ryan Zimmerman, the only player to have appeared in each season since the Nationals moved from Montreal to Washington, D.C., before the 2005 campaign.
With one of their veteran clubhouse leaders from last year, Gerardo Parra, moving on to play in Japan, Doolittle thinks it’s important to have Zimmerman’s seasoned influence, especially with an influx of new talent on the roster.
“The clubhouse, he’s such an important part of that,” Doolittle said of Zimmerman. “The clubhouse dynamic, he was one of the leaders of the team last year. I know he battled some injuries, but I also know, I don’t think he’s mentally or physically ready to be done yet. I think he still has some really good baseball ahead of him. I’ve enjoyed playing with him so much and I know so many guys on our team, they have so much respect for him. Just think of what he means to this city and this organization. The fact is, when he was healthy, he was really, really good for us. He proved he can still contribute. He had some huge moments in the postseason. .. He’s still got it.”